Tomdispatch Interview: Engelhardt, The Imperial Press and Me

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[Note to Tomdispatch readers: The person who runs Tomdispatch is not usually the focus of this site, but I decided to make an exception and run this two-part Nick Turse interview with me. It’s my way of announcing some Tomdispatch news: All the interviews I’ve done so far for the site are to be collected into a paperback that Nation Books will release late this October. It will be entitled Mission Unaccomplished, Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters and I’ll urge it on you at the proper moment. This interview with me will end the book. In the meantime, for any of you who might care to read my earlier writings, check out my history of American triumphalism, The End of Victory Culture (from which I regularly crib passages for Tomgrams). Studs Terkel called it “as powerful as a Joe Louis jab to the solar plexus.” Or, for that vacation moment this summer, pick up my novel, The Last Days of Publishing, which focuses on the other world I’ve inhabited — as a book editor. Herbert Gold wrote of it in the Los Angeles Times, “A satisfyingly virulent, comical, absurd, deeply grieving true portrait of how things work today in the sleek factories of conglomerate book producers… a skillful novel of manners — of very bad manners.” Tom]

Reading the Imperial Press Back to Front
A Tomdispatch Interview with Tom Engelhardt (Part 1)

Nick Turse stands at the door, a frizz of curly black hair, a fringe of beard, in a dark T-shirt and green cargo pants. Slung over his shoulder is a green backpack (a water bottle sticking out of a side pouch) so stuffed that he might well have been on a week’s maneuvers. When I mention its size, he says, “Genuine military surplus,” smiles, and lets it drop to the floor with a thunk. Immediately, he begins rummaging inside it and soon pulls out a tiny box sporting drawings of futuristic robot warriors and covered with Japanese characters (but also with a tiny “Made in China” in English). “Knowing your tastes,” he says, handing it to me. He found it at a toy store in Tokyo on his way back from Vietnam.

Young as he is, he’s been in the government archives for years and is one of our foremost experts on American war crimes in Vietnam. In fact, the combination of historic crimes and toys first brought us together at a diner a block from my apartment, perhaps three years ago. I had written a book, in part on Vietnam, in part on how an American “victory culture” had once expressed itself in the world of children’s play. He read it and was looking for a little advice on his work. Soon after, he began sending out to friends his own homespun version of Tomdispatch and put me on his e-list.

Overwhelmed by such send-outs, I ignored his for a while, but he had such an eye for the place where toys, entertainment, and the military-industrial complex merged that I finally found myself paying attention, and one day called, asking if he would write a Tomgram on the subject. The rest, as they say, is Tomdispatch history. Now, in a busy life that includes writing two books and working a couple of jobs, he spends his spare time as the site’s associate editor and research director — I may not have much money to offer but titles are plentiful — and has become one of its more popular writers.

As we walk into the dining room, reviewing our past history, he says wryly, “You found me in the cabbage patch.” For a brief moment, at the dining room table, we’re both absorbed in preparations. Cellophane wrappers come off tapes that are clicked into tape recorders. Then we seat ourselves and, for the first time since I began these interviews, I swivel my two machines so they face me.

Outside, on this late spring Sunday, the sky has darkened and rain is beginning to fall. Nick says into his tape — he’s the pro here, having interviewed many vets from the Vietnam era — “May 21, 2006, Turse Interview with Tom Engelhardt” And when I give him a quizzical look, he adds, “I don’t know how many tapes I’ve gone through and then thought: Who was I interviewing? Who is this guy?” Who is this guy turns out to be the theme of the afternoon.

Nick Turse: Was there some eureka moment when you created Tomdispatch?

Tom Engelhardt: It was more an endless moment — those couple of months after 9/11 when, for a guy who was supposedly politically sophisticated, my reactions were naïve as hell. I had this feeling that the horror of the event might somehow open us up to the world. It was dismaying to discover that, with the Bush administration’s help, we shut the world out instead. What we engaged in were endless, repetitive rites that elevated us to the roles of greatest survivor, greatest dominator, and greatest victim, all the roles in the global drama except greatest evil one.

I’m also a lifetime newspaper junkie. I just couldn’t bear the narrowness and conformity of the coverage when I knew that this had been a shocking event, but that there was also a history to 9/11. It only seemed to come out of the blue. I was a book editor by profession. I had published Chalmers Johnson’s prophetic Blowback two years earlier. I became intensely frustrated with the limited voices we were hearing.

At the same time, watching the Bush administration operate, I became increasingly appalled. [There’s a thunderclap outside.] Maybe it’s dramatic license to have thunder booming in the background now.

Look, I had been at the edges of the mainstream publishing world for almost thirty years and I’d done useful work. I had nothing to be embarrassed about. I also had two reasonably grown-up kids and, looking at the world in perhaps early November 2001, I had an overwhelming feeling — maybe this was the eureka moment, though it crept up on me — that I couldn’t simply go on as is. We’re egocentric beings. We tend to move out from the self. Children are next, then spouse, friends, relatives, your city, your nation, the world. I couldn’t bear to turn this world over to my children in this shape. I had no illusions about what I could do. I wasn’t imagining Tomdispatch. I just felt I had to make a gesture.

NT: What was your initial vision then?

TE: I had none. This is very much me. I was fifty-seven, an aging technophobe. Computers scared me. I had barely gotten email.

Thinking about this interview today, a passage came to mind from a book I edited years ago called To the Ends of the Earth. A British expedition to Greenland in 1818 had a first meeting with a small group of the most northerly people on the planet

NT: These are Inuit?

TE: Yes, four Inuit. The Brits have an interpreter. “What great creatures are these?” the Inuit ask about the British sailing ships. They’re houses made of wood, the interpreter replies. “No,” they insist, “they are live. We have seen them move their wings.” Later, one of the tribesmen is brought closer. Overcome with fear and astonishment, he cries out to the boat: “Who are you? What are you? Where do you come from? Is it from the sun or the moon?”

Now, I was that tribesman and, for me, the world of the Internet was that wondrous, fearsome boat. That November, I don’t think I yet realized that you could read a newspaper on line. But a friend emailed me a piece from an Afghani living in California — our Afghan War had just begun — who wondered what it was like to bomb rubble because, after all those years of civil war, that’s all Afghanistan was. The image stunned me exactly because you couldn’t find anything like it in our press. And so I made up a little list, maybe twelve friends and relatives, and sent it off with a note saying, you’ve got to read this, and that started me wandering the Internet looking for other voices we weren’t hearing.

“Voices from elsewhere, even when the elsewhere is here” was what I used to say about the kind of book publishing I did. I stumbled across Arundhati Roy’s pieces on imperial America. I started reading the British Guardian, various papers around the world, piling up pieces and sending them out with little comments that got longer and longer. Just an unnamed e-list. Then people from the ether started writing in: Hey, could you put me on your list? Some of them were journalists. I didn’t even know how they found me. By then, I was doing it obsessively. I couldn’t stop. Maybe a year later, I had this list of four or five hundred e-beings. At that moment, toward the end of 2002, the wonderful fellow who runs the Nation Institute, Ham Fish, first suggested sponsoring it as a website. It had never crossed my mind.

Even the name Tomdispatch began as a joke. Friends of a friend started saying about my emails, “We got another Tomgram today.” It struck me as funny and I do think, no matter how grim things may be, you have to remain somewhat amused with the world.

NT: So from a clipping service to a broader e-list and then a website.

TE: Next, I started asking friends to write original stuff for me. The first Tomgram — on Bush-administration-induced smallpox hysteria — was by your former graduate school advisor, David Rosner. The website barely existed then. Almost no one saw it, which was sad since the piece was very good. Remember, I had been editing and publishing for thirty years: Chalmers Johnson, Mike Klare, John Dower, Arlie and Adam Hochschild, Mike Davis, Jonathan and Orville Schell — and all of them you can read at Tomdispatch.

That’s how it got close to where it is now, by complete happenstance, because I was too old to know better and just stumbled into this world where, along with the obvious disadvantages, my age has some advantages.

NT: Tell me about them.

TE: I bring some old-fashioned things to the on-line world. However pressed for time, I still believe in the well-made, well-edited essay. And length doesn’t scare me. Everyone on-line is supposed to have the attention-span of a gnat, but counterintuitively I’ll run pieces of up to ten thousand words. Sometimes the world just can’t be grasped short. So length defines — and limits — my site. It signals that Tomdispatch is the product of obsessional activity, which means you probably have to be an addict to read it. On the other hand, I’m too old to fully appreciate people yakking at each other in something like real time. You won’t find that at Tomdispatch.

Because I started off writing for friends, my tone was informal, personal. I kept that when I went public. Though I don’t write a lot about myself, I suspect people feel I’m speaking to them, as I hope I am.

NT: What about that tagline at the site, “a regular antidote to the mainstream media” and, by the way, tell me about the poison?

TE: To start with that poison, as you put it, Tomdispatch is a 24/7 operation for which I don’t have 24/7; but every day I try to read the New York Times, my hometown paper, cover to cover. Sometimes the Wall Street Journal. The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and several others on-line if I have the time. Then I check Juan Cole, a great, thoughtful collecting site for Iraq and the Middle East and start visiting what I call “riot sites” like or Commondreams or Truthout or ZNET or the War in Context that have a million headlines chosen by some interesting eye.

I’ve always claimed that, when you read articles in the imperial press, the best way — and I’m only half-kidding — is back to front. Your basic front-page stories, as on the TV news, usually don’t differ that much from paper to paper. It’s when you get toward the ends of pieces that they really get interesting. Maybe because reporters and editors sense that nobody’s paying attention but the news junkies, so things get much looser. You find tidbits the reporter’s slipped in that just fall outside the frame of the expectable. That’s what I go looking for. Sometimes it’s like glimpsing coming attractions.

Here are a couple of tidbits I picked up deep in the Times recently.

There was an interesting front-page piece by Sabrina Tavernisi, “As Death Stalks Iraq: Middle Class Exodus Begins.” After the jump, pretty deep inside, there’s this line: “In all, 312 trash workers have been killed in Baghdad in the past six months.” There it is: basic, good reporting that no one’s going to notice or pick-up on. And yet it probably tells you just about everything you need to know about life in Baghdad today. Forget the security forces, forget top officials. Three hundred and twelve garbage men slaughtered. Holy Toledo!

So that kind of reporting, hidden but in plain sight, can start me on an Iraq piece. I mean, here’s the thing about the American press: If you have the time, it’s all there somewhere. But who, other than a news nut like me, has the time to look for it?

Okay, here’s another by Jim Rutenberg. This one, which greatly amused me, was tucked away on page twelve of the Times. First, though, I have to say something about article placement. Every spring, I become an editor to a group of young journalists at the Graduate School of Journalism in Berkeley. And where do they read their news? Remember, these are professional news junkies. They read it online! Most of them do not read a daily paper daily. “Why should I read the L.A. Times in print,” one of them told me, “when they’ve posted their major stories the night before?”

But if you don’t read the paper paper, you don’t see how it’s arranged and you miss all the little stories, some of which may be very big, buried deep inside the fold. In a sense, my students don’t understand the organization of a newspaper.

Take the little Rutenberg piece, only ten paragraphs long, headlined, “With the President as the Guest, the Hostess Sends Regrets,” about how Republican House seats were starting to come into play. It was a story that would hit the front pages only days later. Here was the paragraph I loved, quoting a column elsewhere I had missed. “The situation has been different for others who have clearly snubbed the president, like the Republican candidate for governor in Illinois, Judy Baar Topinka. One of her aides told the syndicated columnist George Will last month that she wanted the president’s help to raise money only ‘late at night’ and ‘in an undisclosed location.'”

Read that and you already know a lot about American politics at this second. I was one of the few places, I’m proud to say, insisting very early on that there was no bottom to Bush’s approval ratings. Read deep into the paper and into articles, and you know enough to write pieces that look predictive but aren’t. Of course, this is also to acknowledge that most of the political Internet is parasitically based on reporting done in the mainstream media. Without money, what other possibility could there be?

NT: So it’s all there just buried in the back pages?

TE: It’s the genius of the American press that you can always say something’s been covered, even when nobody sees it.

NT: So are they hiding it from us or don’t the editors notice those last paragraphs — or care?

TE: None of the above, I suspect. My basic line is: If you put three CPAs — and my father-in-law was a CPA, so no disrespect intended — and three journalists on stage and ask them to talk about their professions, the CPAs would be the introspective ones. Journalists often don’t seem to have a clue about how their world actually works.

That’s probably one reason why it works as well as it does. In states with propaganda machines, everyone knows how things work. If you were in the old Soviet media, you knew you could write what the state or Party told you to write. You knew you were a paid hack. The American media doesn’t work that way. It’s like a conspiracy of which nobody involved knows they’re a part. It’s genius itself.

NT: Do you think you see the world differently than mainstream journalists or do you just say what they won’t?

TE: I tell my students: Look for wherever you’re askew our world, wherever there’s just that little crack of space between you and society. Everyone has that somewhere. Otherwise when you go out to report, you’ll just bring back what we all know anyway.

When I look back on the young Tom Engelhardt, I couldn’t have been more American normal. I was deeply involved in what in a book I wrote I later came to call “victory culture,” the parades, the military, the on-screen glory. I was an all-American boy in a way that maybe only a second or third-generation American could be. You know, a Jewish kid who was completely hooked on American history, a nut in high school on the Civil War and World War II. On my own, I memorized the inspiring speeches of generals.

Yet when I look back — and I came from a liberal New York family (nothing radical there) — I would say that from an early age, for reasons that still puzzle me, I was deeply anti-imperial. Of course, that’s in the American grain too. It still seems a defining aspect of me, and now of Tomdispatch. I am just against everything that goes with empires, of which, I think, we’re one.

Back then, bored white kid, only child, living in the middle of New York City, probably feeling a little out of it even before teen awkwardness set in, I felt askew. And I hated how that felt at the time, but it’s proved valuable since. When I read a paper, my eyes just seem drawn to things that not everybody notices.

NT: Give me an example.

TE: Okay, here’s a piece in the Times by John Burns, a fine reporter, on the new Iraqi government just now being installed inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, a unity government in which, as of today, the prime minister still can’t name the three key ministers for security — this, in a country where the whole issue is security, or the lack of it. Anyway, Burns’ piece is labeled “news analysis,” and headlined, For Some, a Last, Best Hope for U.S. Efforts in Iraq.

Now my brain works by association. I think best when I swim: metronomic motion, straight crawl. Like those Magic 8-Ball toys of my childhood, I just wait for the thoughts to rise onto the screen of my brain and surprise me. I love imagery. We’re such a metaphoric species. My eye is always drawn to the metaphors we use without much thought.

I’ve been following the Iraq news intimately for at least four years now and the American imagery has told such a story: There were the first upbeat images after the invasion when we were teaching the Iraqi child — as the likes of Rumsfeld and Bush put it — how to take the “training wheels” off that bike of democracy. So fabulously patronizing. Then, as things got worse, you got your “turning points.” (The President’s the only one left mentioning those these days.) And with them went the “milestones” of progress, after each of which there would be a worse set of disasters until they kind of faded away and you got images instead of the invasion having opened a Pandora’s Box in Iraq.

Then, maybe six months ago, Americans officials made it to the metaphoric “precipice” and soon after looked into the “abyss” of civil war before “taking a step back.” You saw such imagery quoted in the press all the time, usually from the mouths of the anonymous officials who swarm through such stories.

Now, Burns, today, has the newest Bush administration image. I first noticed it when Condi Rice went to Baghdad at the end of April to twist arms and get the prime minister we wanted. Officials in her party were quoted as saying that this was “a last chance,” which was, of course, absurd. I mean, this situation has been devolving for four years.

A month of sectarian catastrophe later, Burns’ piece quotes yet more anonymous American “military and civilian officials” who feel they are “witnessing what might be the last chance to save the American enterprise in Iraq from a descent into chaos and civil war.” If you keep reading, you find that we’re now at a “critical juncture,” kind of a turning point without the optimism; then, that the Americans “played a muscular role in vetting and negotiating over the new cabinet.” Now that’s a wonderful phrase, like we’re at the gym.

NT: It’s the strong arm.

TE: Yes, but so much more polite. Then you discover that our ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, “acted as a tireless midwife in the birthing of the new government.” Now, if this were, say, the Russians and some Central Asian autocracy, it would be strong-arming the locals and creating a puppet government. And then, part way in, those “milestones” arrive. The piece is a compendium of images from the Bush experience in Iraq — with some new gems thrown in. This is just the automatic writing of the press in a hurry. But for me, it would be a jumping off place for a piece.

Reading newspapers, I’m often aware of what an imperial planet we’re on. Things only work in one direction. Sometimes, just for the hell of it, I imagine flipping the directional signs.

For instance, a recent front-page New York Times piece about the CIA went essentially like this: Good news! Despite all its well-known problems, the Agency has bolstered its corps of spies, ramped up its on-the-ground capabilities, and we’re finally on the verge of breaking operatives into closed societies like, say, Iran. I’m thinking: Whoa, it doesn’t even faze us to proclaim to all and sundry that we have the right to mobilize vast numbers of covert operatives and put them in any other society of our choosing, for any kind of mayhem we might desire. We broadcast that fact on the front pages of our major papers.

So flip this story. Blazing headlines, the Tehran Times. The Iranians announce that, despite years of problems, their intelligence agencies have just bolstered their spy corps significantly and proudly expect to be capable soon of seeding the closed society of Washington with covert teams of operatives. We would be outraged. We’d be bombing them tomorrow! The fact is we’re allowed to talk and write in a way permitted to no other people on Earth. It’s imperial freedom of speech.

Or imagine January 2008. A new American administration is coming into power and the “news analysis” in an Iraqi paper praises the “muscularity” of Iraq’s minister to Washington and the way he “midwived” the birth of the new government. Of course, it’s not even imaginable. There is no such world.

NT: If you wrote something like that, it would be labeled satire.

TE: I say to my students: Writing, like everything else in the universe, is essentially an energy transfer but a very weird one. The energy of writing is something you hook a reader with. It can drive readers through a piece. Even if you’re writing about terrible things, there should be pleasure to the writing itself. And humor, parody, satire, they’re powerful tools. When things strike me as absurdly funny, I don’t hesitate, though our world is now so extreme that satire can easily be mistaken for the real thing, as confused or outraged letters from readers often remind me.

[Note: Part 2 of Tom Engelhardt’s interview, “On Not Packing Your Bag and Heading Home When Things Go Wrong,” will be posted Thursday.]

Copyright 2006 Tomdispatch